In Kelly Reichardt’s lovely new movie First Cow, set way out on the 1820s Oregon frontier, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friend King-Lu (Orion Lee) rake in the dough thanks to, well, dough. Cookie, a onetime baker’s assistant, cooks “oily cakes,” and entrepreneurial King-Lu sells them to the trappers and soldiers at Fort Tillicum for piles of silver pieces, company scrip, and beads. The wild men of the wild frontier go, if possible, even wilder for the oily cakes, treasuring the taste of something soft and sweet in so hard and bitter a place. Even the local governor, played by Toby Jones, loves the cakes. When he nibbles one (sold to him at double the sticker price by King-Lu), he looks into the distance and says, with wonder, “It tastes of England.” The secret ingredient in these oily cakes? The milk that Cookie and King-Lu purloin late at night from the governor’s own cow (played by breakout newcomer Evie), the first in the territory.
“History hasn’t gotten here yet,” King-Lu says, and neither have cookbooks, so what recipe did Cookie follow for his delicious-looking fried doughnuts, reminiscent of malasadas or zeppole? I wanted to try those oily cakes and see if they would please my sugar-addled 21st-century palate as it did those grizzled men of the West. Luckily, Reichardt shared the ingredient list, developed by the writer-director and her co-writer, Jonathan Raymond, from historical recipes of the time.
After watching Magaro work his magic on screen, I felt ready to make my own oily cakes. First step: illicitly milk a cow. Unfortunately, the dairy that delivers our family’s milk each Tuesday rebuffed my requests to take one of their herd in hand. “It’s just that if you don’t have a lot of experience milking cows, the cow might react poorly and someone could get hurt,” South Mountain Creamery’s customer service rep told me apologetically, noting also that “this is a pretty weird request.”
Instead, I shoplifted a quart of whole milk from the Harris Teeter. That was after I asked a Harris Teeter employee where they kept the lard and she replied, “Lard, huh? That’s a real old-time ingredient.” Exactly! Unfortunately, they had not stocked lard in some years. Instead I bought three large containers of Goya lard—just an incredible amount of lard—at a nearby Latin market, where the cashier asked me if I was making carnitas, and, rather than attempt to explain the whole stupid thing, I said yes.
I mixed up all the ingredients, including the quick-rise yeast that the production substituted for era-appropriate pâte à choux, the French pastry base whose high moisture content helps éclairs rise. Meanwhile, I melted every single bit of the horrifying amount of lard in a big Dutch oven. Apparently the First Cow production used a candy thermometer to ensure the lard was the right temperature, but I did not, because 1) they did not have candy thermometers in 1820, 2) I did not have a candy thermometer, and 3) Kelly Reichardt did not actually tell me what temperature they cooked at. Instead I just waited until the lard was really freaking hot, hot enough to insta-brown a dollop of batter, then dropped big spoonfuls into the lard and let it bubble away.
The first few oily cakes were good, but not life-changing, even to a frontiersman. They were flattened blobs rather than spheres, and they weren’t as puffy as I would have liked. Then I realized I forgot the eggs, so the next batch was really great! Deep-fried puffy spheres with crunchy little tails, steaming and delicious drizzled with (as in the movie) a little honey and a little cinnamon. (Where did people in 1820s Oregon get cinnamon?! Who knows.) My friend Jonathan, a poet and teacher, picked one up, and I said: “It’s 1820! You’re a rugged, bearded dude trapped among a bunch of other dudes! No one appreciates art—they just want furs and silver! You haven’t eaten anything that isn’t hardtack or squirrel in like five years!” Would it blow his mind? Jonathan wiped his mouth and said, “These are good!” He now owes me five pieces of silver.
Evie’s Tasty Oily Cakes
Adapted from Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow
• 1½ cup whole milk, warm, preferably stolen in dark of night
• 1 packet instant active dry yeast
• 1/3 cup warm water
• 2 whole large eggs, lightly beaten with a whisk made of reeds plucked from the river’s edge
• 1¼ stick unsalted butter, melted
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 48 oz animal lard—just an astonishing amount of lard—for frying
• cinnamon and honey for finishing
Pour the packet of yeast into the warm water and let sit for five minutes.
Meanwhile, scoop all 48 ounces of lard—yes, all of it—into a big Dutch oven. Heat on medium-high until the lard is melted and really, really, really hot. When you drop a tiny bit of dough into it, it should sizzle and start to brown pretty quick.
In a big mixing bowl, whisk the milk, melted butter, and eggs until combined. Add the yeast and water and stir.
In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, flour, and salt. Add to the wet ingredients and stir until combined. Add a little more milk if it doesn’t seem as thin as the dough Cookie used.
Drop little 1/3-cup spoonfuls into the hot oil. Use a big slotted metal spoon or other frying tool to poke them around as they bubble. Turn ’em over if one side is getting dark faster than the other. Scoop them out and place them on a paper towel–covered plate.
Drizzle with honey, sprinkle with cinnamon, and hope the governor never asks why they taste so good.